By msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/16/2007 9:48:51 AM ET 2007-08-16T13:48:51

About a year ago, I attended a sex toy exposition where manufacturers of “novelties” displayed their wares, hoping to entice retailers to buy boxes and boxes of mechanical satisfaction. Walking around the display halls, I realized that it is impossible for a man to feel good about himself when confronted with a few thousand wall-mounted penis replicas that look as if they had been exposed to radiation at a Nevada test site. A zucchini of such dimensions would win blue ribbons at every county fair.

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Not only were these contraptions enormous, but they buzzed and rotated, and some were even computer programmable to create a sort of vibrating symphony.

I imagined women coming home with these things and their men whining, “It’s not fair! I don’t have a motor!”

Can you blame us? In case you have been living in some undisclosed location, men now have a set of body insecurities — abs, hair, biceps, rear, teeth — that parallel the ones with which women have long been blessed. And now we have to compete with battery-operated boyfriends. Is it too skinny, too curved, too short? Does it look like Curly from the Three Stooges? Does the helmet remind you of Darth Vader?

And we’re not even to the part about how well it works. (“The force is strong with this one.”)

Battling envy
Combine the explosion of sex toy mania that has de-stigmatized novelties (putting electrical accoutrements in the hands of millions of women) and research showing that only 30 percent of ladies reach orgasm with intercourse alone, and it’s no wonder some men may find themselves battling vibrator envy.

Joy Davidson, a sex therapist, author and host of the DVD series “Couples Guide to Sexual Pleasure,” says that clients and the merely curious have asked her hundreds of times about the issue of men becoming, shall we say, a bit jealous of their wives’ or girlfriends’ mechanical helpers.

Stereotypes not withstanding, most men do take pride in their work. We like to think we’re good at it, or at least competent. But as Davidson says, “So much choreography goes into orgasmic sex that sometimes it is wisest to accept help wherever you can get it!”

Chiropractors all over the country are just waiting for us to sprain something trying to contort ourselves into just the right positions to hit all the buttons during intercourse. But Davidson argues that sex toys can help us to be in two places at once. Better, she says, to see a sex toy “as an assistant rather than competition.” The device can be buzzing away while he is busy kissing and touching her, pretending to be the appliance repairman.

It's no substitute
Exactly how and when to use a sex toy so a man views it as a teammate rather than his indefatigable rival can be tricky, says Kim Airs, the founder of Grand Opening!, the famed Brookline, Mass., sex shop. When the thousands of customers who bought these things from her asked about using them with a man, Airs advised them to be sure vibrators and dildos are incorporated into lovemaking, not used as a substitute. That way, it’s a richer experience for both partners.

Airs suggests trotting out the vibrator well into lovemaking, not from the get go, and letting the man apply it to the woman. Not only will he learn more about his lover’s body, he’ll be an active participant.

One problem with many sex toys is that they look like detached penises, so one can see why a guy might feel a little inadequate staring down all that anthropomorphic manhood. That’s why Airs likes non-cyborgian devices that don’t look like mounted hunting trophies.

The trick, Airs and Davidson agree, is to not let him feel left out of the action.

Both also say that men really have nothing to worry about and that women can ease male minds by doing a little educating. “I’d explain that it isn’t the size or the shape so much as it is the intensity of the buzz” that women like, Davidson suggests. And no matter how big you are, even the most demanding woman doesn’t expect a man to buzz.

Airs tells women to say that “there are many reasons why women use toys.” For example, as this column has explained before, geography sometimes conspires to place the female clitoris such that intercourse is simply unable to stimulate it enough. “Plus, variety is the spice of life,” she continues. “It’s just an alternative to hands or the real thing.”

Notice how Airs says “the real thing”? About ninety-some percent of men have experience masturbating, many with the regularity of Mussolini’s trains. So it must feel good, right? And yet something like the same percentage of men would say that they do not prefer Mr. Hand to a woman. Why would it be any different for most women?

Skin feels good. It is fulfilling to feel another’s body, no matter how big or small or cockeyed a part may be.

Besides, we are exchanging so much more than orgasms and body fluids when we have sex. We share something intimate and that can never be replicated by any device.

As wonderful as orgasms may be, if they were the sole purpose of sex, we’d all buy one of Woody Allen’s Orgasmatrons from “Sleeper” and save the grief that comes from dating and falling in love.

But most of us want to share the experience of sex. While that giant dildo could make a fellow start opening spam advertising herbal enhancement, it may be helpful to recall that the woman lying there holding that thing picked him, out of all the men she could have had, to use it.

MSNBC.com columnist and Glamour magazine contributing editor Brian Alexander’s book, “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction,” will be published Jan. 15 by Crown/Harmony Books.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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